|Posted September 25, 2008|
RMAC coaches pick Pack to finish third in conference
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Fresh off the best season in school history, which included an RMAC championship, the CSU-Pueblo women's basketball team have cited 2008-09 as the season that they not only establish themselves as the elite team in the RMAC, but in their region, as well.
The RMAC coaches, however, who voted in the RMAC's preseason women's basketball poll, released Thursday, told the ThunderWolves "not so fast."
The ThunderWolves were picked to finish third in the conference this season, behind fellow 2007-08 NCAA Tournament qualifiers, Nebraska-Kearney and Fort Lewis, which was selected to take the RMAC Western Division. The Skyhawks were also selected to win the conference, according to the poll.
Despite the perceived lack of respect given to the ThunderWolves, Pack coach Kip Drown says this season should be a great year, thanks to a strong core of returners which have among the most playoff experience in the RMAC. In addition to their berth in the NCAA Tournament last season, the ThunderWolves qualified for the big dance in 2005-06, as well.
"Seven out of our nine returners have played in big games, and they have learned things that you can't coach," Drown said. "Our leaders [headlined by returning seniors Jonnie Draper (Sr., Littleton, Colo.) and Mary Rehfeld (Sr., Juneau, Alaska)] are some of the best I've seen in all of my 31 years of coaching. They've really taken ownership of this team."
With that intangible in place, the ThunderWolves will enter 2008-09 hoping that the ability is there to carry the Pack to a second consecutive RMAC Championship, and perhaps more. The ThunderWolves return "three-and-a-half starters," according to Drown, alluding to sophomore point guard Rachel Espinoza (So., Pueblo, Colo.), who shared duties with departing point guard, Kaylon Miller, in the starting lineup. Joining Espinoza are Draper, Rehfeld and Sarah Staggs (Jr., Glendale, Ariz.), who was an all-RMAC honorable mention selection last season.
Despite returning such star power, the ThunderWolves were blanked in the preseason all-conference selections, as the Pack were one of just six teams in the 14-team conference to to have any representatives in the RMAC's preseason all-conference team.
All-conference selections aside, Drown said that his team should be one of the best scoring teams in the RMAC.
"This is one of the best teams I've had in Pueblo as far as scoring," Drown said. "But we will only be as good as our defense allows us."
Gone is the 2007-08 RMAC Defensive Player of the Year, Lindsay Black, and in to take up her presence on the boards and blocking shots is Staggs, who went over 10 rebounds in a game five times last season. She also averaged just over one shot block per game.
"The way we guard and get on the glass will be a good determination of how successful we are," Drown added.
The rest of the RMAC: Fort Lewis, the preseason conference champion pick, will be formidable this season, returning five of their leading scorers from a year ago, with its top scorer, Allison Rosel, coming back. Rosel was selected as the Preseason Player of the Year.
Skyhawk coach Mark Kellogg gave a rosy preview of his team.
"This team is in the best shape we have ever been," the fourth year coach said. "This is the most athletic group I've had since I've been here."
Fort Lewis, usually a mediocre team in the RMAC, has risen to the top of the conference during Kellogg's tenure, and now wear the unfamiliar label of "top dog."
"[The women's basketball program] has never been in that position in our history, as far as I know," Kellogg said. "It's a new thing for us, but we'll relish it."
The cream of the RMAC: Judging by 2007-08, the ThunderWolves will need to contend with Fort Lewis, Adams State and Mesa State if they are to get a Western Division title, and perennial powerhouses Nebraska-Kearney, Metro State and Regis will stand in their way if they are to claim a second straight RMAC championship.
In the west, Mesa State is without 95 percent of their scoring from a year ago, coach Timi Brown said. Adams State is poised to climb the standings, improving from a 13-15 record last season to a predicted sixth place finish in the RMAC, or third in the Western Division. The Grizzlies return four starters, including Preseason all-Western Division selection, Vera Jo Bustos, the reigning RMAC Freshman of the Year.
On the other side of the RMAC, Nebraska-Kearney has their sights set beyond the RMAC.
"We are trying to figure out the pieces that are missing that could make us an [NCAA] Elite Eight team," UNK assistant coach Karen Nicholls said.
Metro State, picked to finish fourth in the conference, is turning over a new leaf as it loses five seniors. But as RMAC basketball aficionados know, Metro State rarely has a down year and regularly reloads its team.
Regis, led by longtime coach Linda Raunig, is looking to rebound from a rash of injuries last season that left them looking average. The Rangers, which defeated the Pack in their only meeting last season, comes back focusing on defense after a 2007-08 in which they led the RMAC in most offensive categories, but were dead last in many defensive categories.
Steel and Silver: CSU-Pueblo's foe in the Steel and Silver series, UC-Colorado Springs, is going to be very young, according to fourth-year head coach, Jessika Caldwell.
"We have a lot of youth, and that brings a lot of excitement and high expectations, because they don't know any better," Caldwell said.
The Dec. 19 tilt between the Lions and ThunderWolves will award the winning school four points in the all-sports competition between the two schools. In the three-year history of the series, UCCS has won all three years, winning last season by a 22-9 clip.